To study and encourage popular interest in all branches of Science.

Newsletter September 2018

Dear member,

The Annual General Meeting took place on Thursday June 22nd at which the President declared his intention to resign. The decision was made following a couple of health scares last Winter. He is now 78 and beginning to experience ‘brain fade’ and continued good health could no longer be guaranteed. It had been his pleasure to have served the Society as President for the past 10 years during which time he had been well supported by the Council. He felt that it was time to hand over the reins to a younger person and he was pleased to inform members that at the last Council meeting, Simon Lang was proposed and he had agreed to fill the vacancy. The President wished Simon a long and happy Presidency in the certain knowledge that he would have the full support of Council.

The Secretary said that Council had announced its nominations for officers in the April Newsletter. As there were no further nominations, the following officers were declared as elected.

Hon. Secretary: Dr. Julie Atkinson

Hon. Treasurer and Membership Secretary: John Tennant

Hon. Programme Secretary: Jim Brightwell

The following nominations were received for the 5 ordinary members of Council.

David Brant, Dr.Kevin Devine, Jonquil Florentine, David Markham, Anne Watson.

As there were no further nominations, these nominees were declared as elected to Council.


In his final report the President said that the last session of lectures were, as expected, of the usual high standard and he reported that all of the next session lectures were already booked. He thanked the Programme Secretary for his hard work and persistence contacting prospective lecturers and juggling dates. The President also paid tribute to all Council members for their continued support and he also thanked all those members who helped at meetings by putting out chairs, making coffee and providing refreshments etc.

In past reports, the President had been pleased to say that this was ‘another good year for the Society’ but last year certainly was not! In April we were saddened by the news of the untimely death of Brian Bond, a member from 1980. Brian was our solar observer and he was to be found up at the observatory on most sunny Sunday mornings demonstrating his hydrogen alpha telescope and showing visitors what the Sun really looks like. Then we received news that our meteorologist, Philip Eden has also passed away after a long illness. But to cap it all, we then received the sad news that Prof. Heinz Wolff had also died. Heinz was a member for over 60 years and was President from 1968-1987. His last lecture to the Society was delivered in September last year. The Society extends our deepest sympathy to all relatives and friends, they will be greatly missed by all their colleagues in the Society.


Enclosed with this Newsletter you will find the Programme Card for the next session. More cards are available at meetings, so do take some if you are able to put them in public places such as libraries, schools etc.

The First meeting of the new session will take place on Thursday Sept 20th at which Dr. Joel Davis from the Natural History Museum will tell us ‘The Story of Water on Mars’. I look forward to seeing you there.


The Hon. Treasurer reminds members that Annual subscriptions are due next month and it would be helpful if those paying by standing order would make sure that their orders have been changed to the new increased rate by October 1st.

News from the Observatory

Those members who frequently visit our website: will know that Thames Water which owns the reservoir on which the Observatory is situated, were engaged in lengthy building and engineering works at the site. The work required the removal of all the grass turf from the entire site and then to fit a waterproof membrane; and then replace the turf. In order to do this the path and railings from the gate to the observatory had to be removed temporarily and also the meteorological instruments and the rain gauges belonging to the Environment Agency. Work began at the end of July 2016 and was expected to be finished by January 2017. But large scale engineering works are renowned for overrunning completion dates and when Thames Water finished, there was still a lot of work for us to do, restoring the electrical supply for example and reinstating the Met. instruments.

We are grateful to Thames Water for involving us in all the negotiations and being mindful of our charitable status and our position as long term tennants. Thank goodness we were not required to remove the observatory building so soon after investing such a large sum on its restoration two years ago.

At present the solar telescope and its mounting have been removed for safe keeping, and we are taking the opportunity to remove and clean the Cooke object glass which is being looked after by Terry Pearce.

Of course, all this disruption means that the Astronomy Section was unable to open the Observatory to visitors as it normally does, in fact the observatory will probably not return to normal operations until the end of September 2018. This will be the longest period of forced closure since the Observatory was founded in 1910, and it has totally spoilt our record for uninterrupted daily meteorological readings from one site.


Obituary Professor Heinz Siegfried Wolff, 29 April 1928 – 15 December 2017:

Julia V. Daniels

When Heinz passed away last December, it was a very sad loss to the world and the many organisations and charities that had benefited from his inventive genius; it left a void in the lives of those who knew him personally and loved him for the man he was, and it was a special loss to the Hampstead Scientific Society and to those members who knew him in the fifties before he became one of the best known scientists in Britain.

Heinz joined our Society in the mid-fifties, I don’t know the exact year, but when I joined in Spring 1957 he was already a member. My earliest memory of him was in May ’57 when he was demonstrating a Geiger counter to illustrate a talk on Radioactive Fallout by Dr. Otto Edholm, who was our President at that time. Heinz worked for Edholm who led the Division of Human Physiology at the Medical Research Council Laboratories at Holly Hill, Hampstead (part of the National Institute for Medical Research). We had just started holding our lecture meetings at Holly Hill, where many of our members at that time were working, though a few like myself worked at the other NIMR establishment at Mill Hill.

In 1959 Heinz and I were elected to the HSS Council, and Heinz soon became a familiar face and voice at meetings, charming members with his ability to present science as great fun. One of the highlights of every year was the Conversazione in October, a social meeting at which members could exhibit anything of scientific interest. Heinz took a boyish delight in demonstrating some scientific phenomenon especially if he could surprise his audience.

Heinz took over from Dr. Edholm as President of the Society in 1968, and remained in office for nearly 20 years, until 1987. While President he gave a lecture every year. It was listed on the Programme as ‘The President’s Evening’, and would be entertaining and unorthodox, but no hint of the subject was leaked in advance. Sometimes it was about designing simple gadgets to make life easier for the elderly and disabled. We began to see his talent for invention and his desire to help the aged with the simple problems of everyday life. His wife Joan said that he invented things before people knew that they needed them. One year he talked about teddy bears and how we interpret their facial expressions, and when he repeated this talk to children at the Royal Institution the front row was entirely occupied by teddy bears! He sometimes introduced a little drama into his talks. At the Society’s diamond jubilee meeting in 1959 members were transported both into the past and the future, as Heinz posed as a spaceman transmitting live pictures of his futuristic trip to Mars in 1999. Later, at the Victorian evening in 1988 where everyone came in fancy dress, Heinz dressed up to lecture in the guise of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

His professional career was impressive. After working for Dr. Edholm, in 1962 Heinz himself founded and became Director of the NIMR Division of Biomedical Engineering at Holly Hill. Then from 1970 to 1983 he was head of the Bioengineering Division of the MRC’s Clinical Research Centre at Northwick Park. While there, he led a Hampstead Scientific Society outing to Northwick Park Hospital to see the MRI scanner. He explained that by scanning the body from all around, it could produce a series of images of the body in cross section, and it did this by solving an enormous number of simultaneous equations. I gasped at the idea and wondered how long it would take a computer to do that, with the patient still lying under the scanner. In 1983 Heinz founded the Brunel Institute for Bioengineering at Brunel University, and he served as its director until 1995, then becoming an emeritus professor. He never stopped working. When he resigned as HSS President in 1987 Heinz and Joan moved away from Hampstead to be nearer Brunel, but he remained an HSS member until he died.

Heinz became one of Britain’s best known scientists as a result of his many appearances on television, first on Panorama in 1966 when he produced the radio pill that could respond to conditions in the gut, then presenting the Young Scientist of the Year awards, The Great egg Race and Great Experiments Which Changed the World. The Great Egg Race ran from 1977 to 1986, and contestants were challenged to see how far they could propel an egg using just the energy stored in an extended rubber band. Heinz wisely retained his German accent and his voice was instantly recognisable. He used to say he was an English gentleman with a German accent, but he was born in Berlin and came to England as a Jewish refugee just as war was breaking out in September 1939.

According to Heinz, his grandfather Siegfried Wolff was a tolerably rich business-man, until the business faltered due to inflation in the 1920s. When Heinz was a child, he had a nanny until he was one and a half, and a governess from when he was four or five, which was not unusual in Germany in those days. Heinz got the impression that the family was comfortably well off. His father had desperately wanted to train as a chemist while he was growing up but he was not allowed to do so, and eventually studied law and philosophy. However he did manage to accumulate a large quantity of dangerous chemicals and chemical glassware and had his own laboratory when he was 16. After he married he kept all these chemicals in his loft. When Heinz was only 3 he already imagined that he would either become a chemist or an engineer, and his father knew enough science and technology to be able to answer the questions of a four or five year old.

Heinz had an electric train, chemistry sets, the German equivalent of Meccano sets, and he built radios. Having parents who were sympathetic to his technical ambitions, he always had lots of wire, batteries, and access to grownup tools. Almost unimaginable now, his parents let him repair mains-powered appliances from the age of 5. This may be why in later years he would often say that children need an element of risk in their lives (he called it vitamin R) so that they can learn from experience.

Heinz vividly remembered looking out of the window of their fourth floor flat in January 1933 and watching the torchlight parade of the SA as Hitler came to power. By 1935 when Heinz was 7, anti-Semitism was growing in intensity. Jewish businesses had to be compulsorily sold to new Aryan owners, and people wanting to emigrate from Germany were not allowed to take any money with them, but Britain expected you to come with some capital to avoid being a burden on the state. Heinz’s father helped people to transfer their money abroad, which was totally illegal under the Nazi administration, and Heinz was often present while these matters were negotiated. By 1938 Heinz and his father were sleeping in a different place each night, which Heinz found very exciting, not at all frightening.

Heinz arrived in England in 1939 when he was 11, just as war was breaking out. He came with his father, his mother’s sister and her husband and daughter, who lived as a family of five, his mother having died when he was 10. Heinz never felt like a refugee, but felt immediately at home in this country, and started school a couple of weeks after arriving here. He said he became a true patriot and England was one of the few countries that he would be prepared to live in.

When the Blitz started the family moved from Golders Green to Oxford, and Heinz went to the City of Oxford School which was one of the best-equipped schools for science teaching anywhere in the country. Here he learnt chemistry and physics, and the lab.technician taught him practical skills such as glass-blowing and soldering. Heinz often waxed lyrical about the versatility of the human hand, with which we can use a sledgehammer, thread a needle or play a violin – why we are homo sapiens. While he was in the sixth form it became possible to buy ex-War Department electronic equipment for ‘a penny-a-pound’, so he persuaded the school to buy a crate of these bargains. When he opened it he was utterly thrilled by the contents which included a cathode-ray tube and thermionic valves. He was given a free hand to play with this inspiring junk.

Heinz won a place at Oxford University to read chemistry, but was asked to delay his degree course for a year so that ex-servicemen could resume their interrupted studies. So he went to work at the Radcliffe Infirmary, the teaching hospital in Oxford, under the wing of Dr. Robert Macfarlane, one of the foremost haemato-logists in the country. Heinz was given the project of devising a machine to count blood cells. At Harwell they were counting the blood cells of their staff because they were concerned about radiation damage to their employees, but they were counting them by eye which was very unreliable and time consuming. It needed to be automated. After teaching himself engineering and electronics Heinz solved the problem, and published his results in Nature in 1950. And it was in Nature that he saw the advertisement for his next job, at the Pneumoconiosis Research Unit at Cardiff, which was founded by the Medical Research Council to investigate diseases which coal miners get by breathing coal dust. He soon realised that counting dust particles was not the way to proceed, but to sort them by weight. While at Cardiff he met Joan Stephenson, a nurse, whom he married in 1953.

Heinz still wanted to go to university, and the MRC generously offered him the equivalent of a state scholarship if he would work in a different medical research unit during each long vacation. He was free to read whatever he liked at university, so instead of Chemistry he chose to read Physiology at University College London.

In his first long vacation he chose to work at King’s College, London. It was the year of the double helix. Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, who were key members of the team that lost the race to find the structure of DNA, were working there, and Heinz said that he learnt a lot from these eminent scientists. In his second long vacation he worked at the Division of Human Physiology at the National Institute for Medical Research at Hampstead, and he returned there to work for Dr.Otto Edholm after completing his degree course.

Edholm introduced Heinz to the Hampstead Scientific Society, an organisation which aimed to explain the latest developments in science to the layman and specialist alike, by organising popular lectures. Heinz was always keen to encourage young people to take up science as a career, so the HSS was the perfect society for him to join, and he was the ideal person to become its next president.

Through his many appearances on television, Heinz became well known and popular with the public. He also became involved with many other projects; he was an advisor to the European Space Agency and the British National Space Centre, he served on the board of the Edinburgh international science festival, and he was vice-president of the Royal College of Occupational Therapists. He was also involved in the Juno Project to fund a British astronaut into space, though actually it was the Russians who paid for Helen Sharman to join the cosmonauts on the Russian space station Mir.

Heinz was strongly motivated to design aids for the elderly and disabled, such as a computer programme to contact a GP or organise the shopping, intelligent homes, and a car with a front-opening door to be parked facing the pavement. But his most recent project, which he described to the HSS in a lecture in 2016, was called ‘Give and Take Care’. Soon there will be so many elderly people needing daily care that there will never be enough money to pay for it. Instead he proposed that fit young people should invest their spare time in caring for older people, and that this could earn them credits which will entitle them to care when they need it. Heinz contributed financially to the scheme which has already started operating in some areas. Heinz gave his last lecture to the HSS in 2017. It was in fact a set of three spoof lectures so convincing that he challenged members to guess which one was true. Heinz was a genial workaholic, and listed his recreations as working, lecturing to children, and dignified practical joking.

Heinz was awarded honorary doctorates by the Open University, Middlesex University and Oxford Brookes. Sir Peter Medawar described Heinz as ‘something of a genius’, and he certainly was.

References: The Making of a Refugee Scientist by Heinz Wolff 2013

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Last updated   31-Oct-2018